The Road Not Chosenbywoodmanone©
This is a story based on a real person and facts about her life. I've embellished, dramatized, and taken literary license to make it more entertaining than a dry biography.
I've found the facts in this story and what this woman accomplished amazing. She showed courage that many of us would be hard pressed to duplicate.
Captain Reginald Collingsworth Smyth sat at the desk in his home office in Devonshire, England. It was early spring in 1894 and he had a decision to make. The results didn't really bother him but the execution was troubling. He had received orders to report for duty in South Africa. The Boers and the Zulus were rebelling against English rule and the empire had decided to augment the troops already in place.
Smyth's orders weren't the problem; he was eager to go as it meant a promotion to Major and this posting would further his rise up the ranks. He was a career army officer and hoped to be a general one day. But first he had to do his duty and pay his dues as it were. Therefore the posting to South Africa suited him very well.
The problem was his 12 year old daughter Margaret Rose. His wife Mary Katherine had died when Margaret was 8. For the last four years Smyth had "farmed" his daughter out to relatives and friends. Smyth would visit his daughter when he had leave from his duties but did so mostly to get sympathy from his relatives so they would continue to raise the girl for him. He also sent money once a month to whoever had the young girl. Not because he worried about the care Margaret received but it made it easier to get someone to watch over her.
The Captain really didn't care that much for Margaret; in fact he resented his responsibility to her. He had only married to further his chances for promotions by presenting a stable home life to his superiors. Smyth felt that Margaret's presence held him back and placed a strain on his chosen career. In truth, Reginald Smyth was a pompous ass that cared for no one and nothing but himself and how to get ahead in the army.
That's what I'll do, he thought as an idea had popped into his head. I'll send Margaret to my sister in law, Mildred, in America. She lives in some God forsaken place called Peoria in the Providence of Illinois. I'll send her a telegram today.
Margaret was an intelligent youngster. She was always at the top of her class in school in spite of moving from household to household as the hospitality of her cousins, aunt and uncles ran its course. Each place she stayed she was required to help with the household chores. Margaret didn't mind; it made her feel like part of the family and the home where ever she stayed.
Margaret had been at her current "foster" home the longest. She was living with a cousin, Florence Teasdale. Florence was several years older than Captain Smyth and lived in a large cottage in a middle class neighborhood. She lived alone and had enjoyed having Margaret stay there. The problem that arose was that Florence was moving to Perth Australia within the next six months to live with her son, his wife and their three children in Perth. Margaret once again would be for all intents and purposes homeless. There wasn't room for the young girl who was an orphan in everything but name.
I think I remind Father too much of Mum, Margaret thought. Why else would he have me live with others instead of with him? I've lived with almost everyone Father knows at one time or another; some more than once. But I guess now he will find us a place to live and we'll be together.
Margaret was correct in her assumption that she reminded her father of his departed wife but not for the reasons she thought. It was true that Margaret bore an uncanny resemblance to her mother. She had the same long dark hair, the same blue eyes and the same almost flawless porcelain like complexion of her mother. Margaret had inherited her father's height and build as she was well formed and tall for her age. She also had her father's calculating, almost cold, mind. If a problem or crisis arose she would solve the problem or handle the crisis without emotion. At least until the situation was taken care of.
Three weeks later Captain Smyth came to see his daughter. Margaret hadn't seen her father for about three months but it didn't make any difference. In the way of all children she was overjoyed to see him. She loved him and had missed him.
"Margaret I've been posted to South Africa," Reginald said by way of greeting. No "hello daughter or love", no "good to see you"; not even a dutiful hug, just his announcement. "You will be going to live with your Aunt Mildred and her family in America. Pack your things; your ship sails from Bristol the day after tomorrow."
"Can't I go with you Father?" Margaret asked hopefully. "How can we see each other if you're in Africa?"
"No my girl, you can't come with me. There are no accommodations for a family at the outpost. I will write to you monthly and when I return to England I will send for you."
In fact, as a Major, Smyth could have brought his family. He had been assigned an apartment that would allow him to bring his loved ones. The Army knew that to keep the officers happy and morale high they needed their families with them if possible for the months of hard duty. In fact Smyth simply did not want to be bothered with his daughter. He quickly got Margaret packed with most of her worldly possessions which fit into two large suitcases and a small overnight bag.
They boarded the train to Bristol early the next morning. Arriving in the port city Captain Smyth arranged lodging for the evening. Margaret didn't know it but it would be the last night she would ever spend in England.
Just after sunrise the Captain escorted Margaret to a pier. The Empress of India, a passenger ship, was sailing for New York City in America on the morning tide. He gave his daughter her ticket for steerage and a large leather wallet that contained Margaret's birth certificate and his sister in law's name and address. In the wallet Smyth had put $50 in United States currency; he'd made the money exchange at his bank before leaving for Bristol.
Reginald Smyth gave Margaret a half hearted hug, kissed her cheek and turned her over to the care of the Purser who was in charge of getting the passengers on board the vessel. He walked away never once turning back to see his daughter waving goodbye with tears in her eyes.
The ship would carryover 500 hundred people. There were 50 First Class berths, 118 Second class, and on this voyage 312 passengers in steerage. The First Class had private state rooms equal to any expensive hotel in England. Second Class traveled in smaller but still private state rooms. The passengers traveling steerage would share part of the cargo hold.
There were no staterooms; just a great open expanse. Each family or group would "stake out" a section of the deck as their own. The four bathrooms placed in each corner of the hold would be shared by all 312 passengers without regard to sex. First Class dined in a special VIP section of the main dining room while Second Class used the rest of the room. A galley had been installed on the fantail for the use of the steerage passengers. They in steerage cooked their own meals using their own supplies on the fantail. They either ate on deck in good weather or down in the hold if the weather turned bad.
Margaret stood in line, waiting to board the ship. First Class would board and then the Second Class passengers would follow. Neither of those groups would have to wait for the lowly steerage travelers to get out of their way. Steerage passengers would board last and be directed to the cargo hold. They would only be allowed on the fantail of the ship as it left port.
No standing at the rail waving goodbye to friends and family, no paper streamers thrown to celebrate the adventure, and no champagne for a toast for calm seas and a smooth voyage. Basically it was "stay out of the way" and "know your place" for the ones traveling steerage. They were treated better than livestock but not by much.
The young girl was deep in thought as the line started to move onto the ship. Margaret was sad to leave her father, her friends and England but she was a little excited to be going to a new country. A shout broke into her thoughts and brought her back to the gangplank. A young man of about 18 was running down the gangplank yelling and gesturing. It wasn't until he got closer that Margaret understood what he was yelling.
"Catch it please. Could someone catch that blasted ticket please," the young man yelled as he ran back toward the pier.
Margaret looked up and saw a piece of paper floating on the swirling sea breeze. As it passed over her head she reached up and snagged the object out of the air just before it could go over the side of the gangplank into the water. As the young man got closer, Margaret turned to him.
"Is this what you were chasing?" She asked holding the object out to him.
He smiled and took the offered paper. "Sure and you're an angel sent to watch over this dumb farm boy." His voice had the lilt of Ireland and his brogue was so thick you could cut it with a knife. "I'm Sean Riley and I thank you young Lass. He bowed and said, "Idiot that I am I didn't hold on to my ticket when the wind came up. Without it I would have been standing on the dock watching as you sailed away."
Margaret couldn't help but smile at Sean's accent and his expression of gratitude. "You're welcome, I'm glad I was able to catch the wayward thing."
"And what is your name? I should know the name of my savior." Looking around Sean asked, "Where is your family? I would like to thank them also for raising such a fine colleen."
"I'm traveling alone to meet my Aunt in America," Margaret replied. "My father is an army officer and he's been posted to South Africa so it's off to America for me."
Sean hid his surprise at her statement. What kind of man would send his young daughter half way around the world alone? He asked silently. Sending her to a strange new country with no one to protect or take care of her. To my way of thinking her father needs a lesson in being her father. Looking at Margaret he had to admire her poise. She's not afraid and seems sure of herself, Sean continued his thought.
"You still haven't told me your name lassie."
"I'm Margaret Rose Smyth," was the answer.
"Well you'll not be alone on this sailing. Me and my friend there will be your protectors, guides, and at your beck and call," Sean said with another bow. "But Margaret is too old and too big of a name for a wisp of a girl like yourself. I think I'll call you Rosie."
"It's a fine name and fits you well. It seems to me that you're facing your adventure with a rosy outlook." Sean paused and asked, "Are you sure it isn't a little of the Irish in you Rosie?"
Margaret, now Rosie, had learned to gauge and judge people very well. It was a talent that came in handy moving from household to household the way she'd been doing. She laughed at the young Irishman and judged him to be trustworthy.
As they were talking the line continued to move. The Purser and his assistants directed the steerage passengers to the fantail. The people bunched up on the side of the aft deck closest to the dock; trying to spot friends and family that had come down to see them off.
"Do you have anyone to wave goodbye to," Sean asked. Rosie shook her head. "Follow me my lass, we'll have the pick of the best spots in our cavern. Let the others wave at the dock; it won't matter because the ship is still leaving. We'll set ourselves up as lords and ladies we will."
Sean grabbed one of Rosie's suitcases, handed the other to his friend Jamie and led her to the hatch closest to the fantail. There was a passageway leading below decks. They continued to make their way down until they reach the birthing section of the cargo hold. Looking around Sean quickly picked out a spot and placed Rosie's bags at two corners of a square and his and Jamie's rucksacks on the other corners. Their "claim" was about 10 feet on a side.
"That should be enough room for a lady like yourself," Sean said to Rosie. "The facilities are right over there and the up passageway is just beyond. It's like having the finest stateroom on the ship. Don't you think Rosie?"
Sean looked over Rosie's shoulder for a few seconds. "Be right back milady," he said and hurried over to the down passageway.
Rosie watched as he walked over to an elderly woman who was looking around in a confused manner. Sean bowed and said a few words to the woman who smiled at the young Irishman. He picked up her bags and led her back to the staked out portion of the room.
"This is Mrs. Day-Lewis," he said to Rosie and Jamie. "She's traveling to meet her daughter in America. It's her first trip on the ocean and I thought she would make a good addition to our merry band." Sean turned to Mrs. Day-Lewis and completed the introductions. "This Margaret Rose Smyth, better known as Rosie and this is my friend and comrade Jamie O'Fallon."
The newly formed family began to sort out their belongings and pick spots to sleep. Sean and Jamie left but returned in about an hour. They carried several life jackets, two cots and six blankets with them. Rosie quickly ran to help them. Setting the load down, Sean and Jamie soon had the cots assembled. They also laid the life jackets down in two rows of four each and covered them with blankets.
"Ladies I give you your boudoir," Sean told them with a bow. "Not as fancy as a First Class stateroom but it beats sleeping on the deck."
"We even got pallets for Sean and me to sleep on," Jamie said. It was the first time he had spoken.
Sometime during the afternoon Mrs. Day-Lewis became Mum to Sean, Jamie, and Rosie. She had been fussing over the young people most of the morning. The name change just seemed to fit. Mum was the one that cooked the midday meal and directed the others on how to clean up. Mum was the one that secured two more life jackets to use as pillows. And that evening Mum was the one that insisted the young people take a bath as well as they could.
Just before lights out Mum patted Sean on the shoulder. "You picked a good spot Sean. We're close to the up passage to the deck so we get fresh air as long as the hatch is open. You've got us close to the bathrooms and we don't have far to go or have to wait in line very much." Mum smiled and ruffled Sean's and then Jamie's hair. "I won't mention how you found beds for us, you Irish rascals."
"No Mum I think the less said about the sleeping equipment the better," Sean replied with a big grin. "But if you see a redheaded Purser's assistant looking for someone, give me a warning will ya?"
The Empress of India was making good time through calm seas. She had three masts that held very large sails which drove her through the waves at a good clip. The Empress also had two engines which turned two large propellers. With both means of propulsion working together the Empress would make port in New York in ten to eleven days. It was fast time for a ship of her size.
The second night at sea Sean was awakened by the sounds of a scuffle and a muted shout. He sat up and saw a man struggling with Rosie. It was obviously a thief as he held one of the girl's suitcases in one hand. He was standing behind Rosie with his arm around her and his other hand over her mouth. As Sean jumped up yelling, the man screamed and pulled his hand to his chest. Rosie had bitten him.
He dropped the case and turned to run but Sean caught him and began to beat on the thief. The cursing of the thief and the yelling as Jamie joined the fight woke some of the "neighbors and they added their voices to the din. The young men soon had the ruffian on his stomach. Jamie had to stop Mum from administering more punishment as the man lay on the deck.
Hearing the noise the night watch ran into the hold and quickly took the thief into custody. Mum dealt with the sailor and explained the situation. "You'll spend the rest of the trip in the brig," the sailor said as he hustled the man out of the hold.
"Ye best not be letting him out either," Sean yelled at the retreating men. "If I see ya again boyo, I'll likely throw you to the fishes."
The rest of the voyage was routine except for a 24 hour period when the Empress fought her way through a small storm. It wasn't a severe storm but the rolling of the ship caused sea sickness in many of the passengers huddled in the hold. Several of them voided their stomachs which led to others doing the same which led to ever more following suit. The noise made by the sick ones and the odor in the hold was intense.
Mum had been on the fantail as the storm approached from several miles away. She swiftly cooked up a brew and took it below to her adopted family. "Drink this," she ordered handing her charges cups of liquid. "It will keep you from becoming sea sick."
"What's in it?" Sean asked as he cautiously smelled the contents of his cup.
"Never you mind what's in it Sean," Mum replied. "But all of you drink it down. I don't want you to suffer the way some of these people are," she said pointing to the others in the hold. Whatever was in the concoction, it worked. Neither Rosie, Sean, Jamie or Mum became sea sick. They were able to help some of the more unfortunate passengers.
After the storm had passed Rosie asked, "Mum where did you learn to make that, well let's call it a tea? You said you'd never sailed before."
"My daughter, Bessie, wrote me about her boat trip. A lady in the cabin next to hers made the brew for her and her children. So Bessie sent me the recipe when we knew I was going to join her."
"Well thank your darling Bessie for us when you see her please," Sean said. "Without her 'tea' we would have been in a bad way."
It was the morning of the eleventh day when the Empress of India sailed into New York harbor. The newly formed "family" had no more problems during the voyage. Now they stood on the aft deck watching the Statue of Liberty glide by.
"There is the finest lady in the land," Sean said staring at the Lady Liberty. He had tears in his eyes.
As they were docking at the pier Sean asked, "Where's your Bessie live Mum."
"Bessie lives right here in New York," Mum answered. "She and her husband will be on the pier to meet me and help me through the business of entering this wonderful new country. How about you and Jamie? Where are you headed?"
"I have a friend in San Antonio Texas that is sponsoring Jamie and me. He has arranged work for us with the stockyards there. Texas is where the cowboys come from you know." Sean laughed. Maybe we'll become cowboys or even cattle barons."
Sean turned to Rosie. "And where are you headed my fine lass?"
"My Aunt lives in a city called Peoria. From what I'm told that's in Illinois," Rosie answered. "Once I get through the lines here I'll have to take a train to Chicago and another from there to Peoria."
Sean took Rosie's hand and kissed it like a gentleman would. "Rosie, my darling, it's been a pleasure knowing you. May St. Patrick guard you wherever you go and guide you in whatever you do. And may his loving protections be a blessing to you always."
"May God hold you three in the palm of his hand Rosie Smyth and Sean Riley and Jamie O'Fallon," Mrs. Day-Lewis said. "It's time to say goodbye. They are letting us off the ship now."
The First and Second Class passengers had disembarked and now the passengers from steerage were allowed to leave the ship. The area around the gang plank was separated from the rest of the dock by a sturdy fence. There was a man standing on the pier directing the steerage passengers to their points of entry.
Those with family members waiting for them or with sponsors were directed to one end of the docking area. The rest of the passengers were directed to the opposite end and through a large gate in the fence. There ferries waited to take them to the processing center on Ellis Island.